Brownsville, the county seat of Haywood County in West Tennessee is in most respects a fairly typical Southern town. It has the typical town square with the county courthouse in the center, and a number of historic homes. But it also has a talented and bizarre hometown artist named Billy Tripp, whose outdoor permanent art installation The Mindfield towers over the buildings on the square. For many years, The Mindfield shared its name with one of Tennessee’s very best restaurants, the Mindfield Grill, but that community institution was not able to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early in 2022, Brownsville gained a replacement when Livingston’s Soda Fountain and Grill opened in the town’s old post office just off the square. The new restaurant has a very different vibe from the old Mindfield Grill, which was somewhat upscale. Livingston’s, on the other hand, has the look and feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. If the atmosphere is nostalgic, it is also cheerful and bright. Unlike the Mindfield Grill, Livingston’s sells breakfast, milkshakes and ice cream floats. But there are a number of similarities, too. Both restaurants had reasonable prices, and both restaurants had amazing food. And they share something else…..former cooks for the Mindfield work at Livingston’s. At any given time, the place can be filled with local residents and out of town visitors, but there is rarely a wait for a table, and the food rarely takes very long to come out. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but hours can be different on different days, so be sure to contact them if you are visiting from out of town.
Saturday April 23 was the main day of Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, a bright and sunny day, but extremely windy. In fact, the wind was so severe that it blew down a number of the vendor tents along downtown streets. When I arrived at the Wade Walton Stage, one of the free stages throughout the daytime, Memphisippi Sounds was on stage, the duo of Cameron Kimbrough and Damian Pearson. While there are not a lot of young Mississippi Hill Country artists, this group is one of the best emerging artists from the region. They were followed by Garry Burnside and his band, and then Duwayne Burnside and his band, and finally Kenny Brown, who was mentored by Mississippi Joe Callicott and the great R. L. Burnside. Around the same time, Como bluesman R. L. Boyce and Lightning Malcolm were on the Sunflower River stage next to Quapaw Canoe Company.
2022 brought some new openings to Clarksdale as well as some sad closings. The Riverside Hotel, famous as the the former hospital where blues great Bessie Smith died, has remained closed since it was damaged in a storm, and a fundraising effort is underway to keep it from closing permanently. Yazoo Pass, although open to a limited extent during weekdays, has closed at night, and was open only briefly on the festival day. But Sean “Bad” Apple’s new blues club in the former Club 2000 building, as well as the opening of the new Buster’s Blues Club next door show that the renaissance in Clarksdale still remains strong coming out of the pandemic.
After a dinner at the Hooker Grocery, I made my way over to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue for Duwayne Burnside’s night show. While the daytime stages are free to the public, the night shows inside the various juke joints require wristbands or paid admissions, but the shows are generally well-attended, and Duwayne’s was no exception.
“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.
Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.
Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.
For Mardi Gras 2022, I decided to ride the Amtrak train down to New Orleans instead of driving my car. I learned that train travel is slow, and at least at the lower fare level, fairly uncomfortable. Worse, dining car service has been eliminated on most routes, and the snack bar food is atrocious and highly overpriced. On the other hand, one gets a very different view of the countryside and small towns from the train.
Upon arrival at New Orleans’ 1950s-style terminal, I was extremely hungry, but limited to something within walking distance, and there was really only one choice, Central City BBQ. To be sure, barbecue is not my usual first thought when I think New Orleans, although there are a number of well-regarded barbecue places about in the Crescent City. But Central City proved to be an inspired choice. Here it was the Saturday before Mardi Gras, and they were open, and not even crowded, which was peculiar, to my way of thinking. The building was attractive, and the smell around the building was delightful. And I got daring; I decided to try the brisket. Brisket is hard to do well; rarely have I had good brisket outside of Texas. But Central City passed the test, with possibly the best brisket I have had anywhere other than Austin. The bacon mac and cheese that came with it was equally pleasing. My food was served promptly, and my meal and drink came to less than $20.
Central City BBQ is also apparently something of a destination at times. There is an extensive outdoor area complete with stage, outdoor bars, colorful painted murals and plenty of tables and chairs, all of which were somewhat reminiscent of Memphis’ Railgarten club. I am not sure when Central City features live music, but it would clearly be a fun place to catch a band. While visiting America’s greatest city, don’t miss out on Central City BBQ.
Little Rock’s River Market District lies along President Clinton Avenue, and is the city’s premiere entertainment district, equivalent to Beale Street in Memphis, except for the fact that the River Market has a far better selection of shopping options as well as the clubs and restaurants. On a cold December Saturday, just down from the diner where I had eaten breakfast, I encountered a coffee bar called Nexus Coffee and Creative, and, on the theory that you cannot have too much coffee on a cold day, I headed inside. The inside was in fact warm and cheery, and the place has their own roastery where they roast their coffees. There is also a sort of local art/antique market inside, which had some interesting items, including cigar-box and coffee-can guitars. The intent of the place seems to be to function as a community hub, sort of the “third place” between home and work that Starbucks often talks about. But locally-owned entities like Nexus are better equipped to do this successfully than large corporate chains. And Nexus’ coffee was very good.
Down the block, I found the large Central Arkansas Library, but what attracted me inside of there was a used book store. Our library in Memphis has a good store of that sort, and the one in Little Rock was as well., There weren’t as many old books in Little Rock’s store, and the prices seemed a bit higher, but I left with four books, Unlike a lot of other entertainment districts, the River Market has something for day and night.
Glenview, a neighborhood of single-family homes along Lamar Avenue southeast of downtown Memphis was one of the first historically-white neighborhoods to open up to African-American residents. Their coming was not without controversy, as the first house purchased by a Black family was firebombed in the late 1940s. Over the next 20 years, the neighborhood became a fairly stable Black community, but the business district along Lamar has not fared as well, with many abandoned businesses.
Paint Memphis is a local non-profit which seeks to improve the look of neighborhoods by painting colorful murals on abandoned buildings in the city. They have done so twice in the Glenview area, and both times much of their work had a music theme. On a hot September Sunday I found images of the Mighty Souls Brass Band, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding among the bright murals along several blocks of Lamar. Other images included useful slogans like “Take the good with the bad. Everything has its season,” and “if you love it, do it everyday.” On the wall of a daycare was the slogan, “Show us the way to love,” and a block east of that, an image of Beale Street with the legend, “I love the blues, she heard my cry.” As an organization, Paint Memphis has not been without controversy. Many of the artists involved are not from the communities where the murals have been installed, and that has occasionally garnered controversy and even demands for removal. Occasionally, some have requested the removal of certain images that seem grotesque or bizarre. But the presence of so much artwork in public areas seems to have caused others not affiliated with Paint Memphis to add more slogans and images.
In the same area were slogans like “RIP George Floyd,” and “We Must Vote,” along with beautiful stylized images of jazz musicians on the boarded-up window of a building adjacent to Glenview Park. Also adjacent to the park was an old mural that read “Glenview” which looks as if it dated from the 1970s, but which seems to have been repainted.
Although the murals with their brilliant colors definitely bring cheer to a streetscape which had been quite drab, the large and historic Lamar Theatre still is a cause for concern. The building, which would make a wonderful live music club or venue, has been vacant for many years. Restored and opened, it could make a wonderful catalyst for a transformation of that stretch of Lamar Avenue into a destination for Memphians and out-of-town visitors alike.
Getting dinner in Clarksdale can be difficult during Juke Joint Festival, so this year I called ahead and made reservations at Levon’s so my friend and I would not have to wait for a table. But one of the cooler (and most mysterious) things about Clarksdale is the way poetic and inspirational slogans appear on the walls of abandoned buildings and walls around the town. This year, there was a new one across from the shuttered Delta Theatre, which read “Strength Lies Within,” a good slogan for my friend, and I photographed her beside it accordingly.
Although we had been told to expect a “modified” Juke Joint Fest due to the pandemic, the actual event proved to be not much different from ordinary years; certainly the crowds were just as large. The weather was beautiful, and one could not escape the feeling that things were slowly returning to some degree of familiarity. Perhaps there were fewer attendees from other countries, as travel between countries was still being affected by Covid-19, but there were far more people than I expected, many from out of state.
Of course there were changes, too, at least one of them sad, as Yazoo Pass restaurant and coffee bar in previous years would have been a hotbed of activity during the festival. This year, it was mostly closed, although it opened briefly in the afternoon for coffee and baked goods to go. Two new downtown lodgings had opened since last year, including the Travelers Hotel and the Auberge Hostel in the former Madidi Restaurant building. There were also many bright new murals in the alleys of downtown Clarksdale; not only did they brighten the environment, but they contained pithy slogans like “The only good border is a border collie,” and “The blues was born behind a mule.”
There did seem to be fewer vendors this year than in previous years, but the ones that were there had some very interesting artworks, hats, barbecue rubs and other items. Walking around and browsing took more than an hour. I eventually found a beautiful piece of wood art with a picture of the late fife and drum band leader Otha Turner burned into it. That I could not pass up, and at $40 it was basically a steal. By the time I got that item to my car, it was almost time for me to catch the next performers I wanted to see.
Although the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale typically fills up all hotel rooms in Coahoma County, sometimes something will open up in the last day or two before the festival as people cancel their trips, and so after weeks of fruitless searching, I had been able to eventually get a hotel room at the Quality Inn in Clarksdale, and therefore didn’t have to make the drive back and forth from Memphis. But I woke up early, and decided to head downtown in search of breakfast.
In a normal year, Yazoo Pass would have been my choice for breakfast, but they had been severely affected by the pandemic, and were not open on the morning of the festival. So the only option was Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes, a decent restaurant whose staff was harried by the flood of customers. I was fortunate, because I managed to get in just before the crowd swooped in, and already had a table before things got truly gridlocked. Although it had been expected that crowds would be down this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, crowds seemed about what would be expected for a Juke Joint Festival day, and there were few masks and not much social distancing. With many people getting vaccinated and case loads declining, a lot of people and places were beginning to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic life.
I leisurely sipped a cup of strong coffee and enjoyed my bacon-and-cheese omelette, hashbrowns, biscuit and pancakes, while blues fans from all over the country filled up every other available seat in the house. It was fun, and delicious.
Heading down toward Cat Head, I ran into DJ Hustleman from Neshoba County out in front of the old Club Vegas. He had not eaten yet and wanted to get caught up with me, so I led him down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, where I knew we could get right in and enjoy at least breakfast biscuits. In that regard, I was not disappointed. I opted for a pour-over coffee, and a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, which was delicious. Hustleman and I sat at a back table and spent some time getting each other up to date, and then I headed up to Delta Avenue to check out vendors and get ready for the first acts of the festival day. The only impact that the pandemic seemed to have was that there were fewer vendors. Even so, I found a very beautiful piece of etched wood-art in honor of the late fife-and-drum-band leader Othar Turner from Gravel Springs, outside Senatobia, and as the price was reasonable enough, I purchased it. Hustleman moved his car and then began playing his guitar on the sidewalk in front of Club Vegas. It was a great beginning to the day.
On and off over the last few years, I have been playing with Duwayne Burnside, the extraordinary blues guitarist and son of Hill Country blues great R. L. Burnside. Our rehearsals recently have been in Holly Springs, but up until last weekend, I never noticed the work of folk art on what appears to be a garage behind a house at West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street. “The Color of My Skin Is Not A Weapon,” says one sign, while the other proclaims “White Silence=White Consent.” Both are surrounded by African masks.
Down Boundary Street to the south toward Highway 7, I noticed another building for the first time, a large two-story building with a chimney at both ends which looked quite historic, but which for some reason I had never noticed before. It looked to be quite old, but I had no idea exactly how old it actually is. The building, once the University of Holly Springs, was built in 1837! It later housed a boys’ school called the Chalmers Institute. Although it looks abandoned, it is apparently in the process of being restored, and will supposedly become a venue for music concerts, weddings and receptions.